First welcome to the UK, sorry about the weather. If you are arriving from the US then you’ll probably be landing at Heathrow or Gatwick airport near London. Firstly, don’t think about renting a car if you are staying in the centre of London, traffic is a nightmare, there is congestion charge of £11.50 a day, and parking is very expensive. The standard of driving is also not the best (just think of Ben Hur). Public transport is your best option for this part of your trip.
If you intend to explore the rest of the UK, especially the more out of the way places then a car would be your best option so here are some completely unauthorised but practical tips and quirks about driving in the UK for the first time.
Choosing Your Car
Most cars in the UK are manual (stick shift) so make sure you specify an Automatic if you are not used to driving these. Also, the big difference – the steering wheel is on the right (the ‘correct’ side of the car) and we drive on the left, definitely the most important thing to remember!
Apart from the transmission, the cars are no longer that different from the US. UK cars tend to be slightly smaller but not as small as they used to be and the engine sizes are generally smaller although this bears no resemblance to their speed. Most Europeans do like a bit of speed, we’ll get onto that later.
There is a range of road types and speed limits but generally speaking, you will encounter:
- Town roads and built up areas where the speed limit is usually 30 mph
- Single carriageway roads – 60mph
- Dual carriageways and motorways – 70mph
However, as you drive along your first motorway and had to guess what the speed limit was by the other cars, you would probably answer 80, 85…. maybe 90 mph.
Surprisingly, the highest speed limit is 70 mph but you will be sitting with the lorries (trucks) on the inside lane.
This brings onto another significant difference to US driving. Apart from very few instances (such as in traffic jams or leaving the motorway in a designated left turn lane), you are not allowed to undertake. The outer lanes of a motorway are for overtaking, Once, you have passed, DO NOT sit there in the outer lane, pull back over to the inside lane. If you don’t you will soon experience the wrath of a senior sales rep in his Audi flashing his lights only inches behind you.
An important note – unlike mainland Europe, we British are not big ‘horn blowers‘. When it is used, it is often the last step before extreme violence ensues.
Don’t worry too much about roundabouts, you shouldn’t get stuck on one like Chevy Chase In National Lampoon’s European Vacation – “Hey look, kids, there’s Big Ben and there’s Parliament.” There are lots of different styles, some with arrows on the road, some with traffic lights, but the basic rules apply. In all cases, give priority to traffic approaching from your right which is already on the roundabout.
Turning Left (1st Exit) – approach in the left-hand lane and signal left, turn left.
Straight On (2nd Exit) – approach in the left-hand lane but do not signal, keep left as you go around the roundabout, once you have passed the first exit signal left and turn off at the 2nd exit.
Turning Right (3rd Exit) – approach in the right-hand lane if there are two lanes, indicating right. Enter and go around the roundabout on the inside still indicating right until you have gone past the second exit, then indicate left and leave at the third exit. Be careful there is no one on your outside as you exit, there shouldn’t be if they are driving correctly but be careful!
There are a lot of speed cameras especially in towns so watch your speed. On motorways, there is also a trend for average speed checks with cameras monitoring your speed over a long stretch of road.
Variable speed limits are also used on busy stretches of motorways like the M25 around London. These are often backed with speed cameras so again, make sure you slow down.
Petrol Stations (Gas Stations)
Not much difference here except that you are not required to pre-pay, just go into the shop once you filled up. Regular unleaded is green and diesel is black coloured at the pump. The regular lowest grade of unleaded petrol is 95 RON which is much higher than the US regular.
When you are in the petrol station you must try a ‘Ginsters Pasty’, the Culinary Excellence for any long distance driver.
Unlike the gas stations in Mississippi, we stopped at, ninja throwing stars are not available in UK petrol stations.
Useful Driving Related British Words & Phrases
- Car Hire – Car Rental
- Saloon – Sedan
- People Carrier – Mini Van
- Estate – Station Wagon
- Boot – Trunk
- Bonnet – Hood
- Manual – Stick Shift
- Windscreen – Windshield
- Handbrake – Parking Brake
- Petrol – Gas
- Motorway – Freeway
- Car Park – Parking Lot
- Give Way – Yield
- Slip Road – On / Off-Ramp
- Lorry – Truck
- Central Reservation – Median
- Pedestrian Crossing – Crosswalk
- Flyover – Overpass
- Indicator – Turn Signal
- Wing – Fender
We hope you haven’t been put off from driving in the UK, it’s not really that different from driving in the USA. Renting a car will give you the freedom to explore the UK in your own time and discover the real Britain, it can be very different from London.
If you have visited the UK, how did you find the driving? Did we leave out anything important?